Are short primary seasons a thing of the past?
From the Iowa Caucuses on 3rd January to the South Dakota and Montana primaries on June 3rd, the five months of official campaigning in the Democratic primaries constituted the final act of choosing a nominee for President of the United States. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had announced their candidacies a year or so before Iowa, and their exploratory committees had been laying the groundwork as far back as Autumn 2006. The truncated time period of the actual season did not stop these from being the longest-running primary campaigns in history, raising and spending around $350m in the process.
Contrary to popular wisdom that failing to have a consensual nominee until June would make life harder for the Democrats, it seems that this elongated process has been monumentally invigorating for the party. Millions of new voters have registered, and millions more have donated to political campaigns for the first time. The extraordinary coverage granted to the Obama-Clinton contest has kept the Republican presumptive nominee John McCain largely out of the spotlight, and the ’50-state strategy’ implemented by Howard Dean (Chair of the DNC) has helped to grow a grassroots organisation in states like Idaho and Alabama where Democrats have been an endangered species for decades.
The involvement of netroots in driving campaigns and honing the narratives of the candidates has been mimicked by the growing importance of the blogosphere and YouTube in the media coverage – how different would this campaign have been without the likes of the Drudge Report, DailyKos, DemConWatch or RealClearPolitics, or the footage of Rev Wright or ‘Snipergate’? The tool that Ted Stevens, the Republican US Senator from Alaska, once called ‘a series of tubes’, is now the indispensable means of organising a national political campaign in the US. The truly-forensic analysis and most insightful coverage has also been led by the web-based commentators (including traditional media outlets on the web), as has the fundraising on the more partisan sites.
This has not only been a Democratic Party phenomenon – the Republicans have also made use of the new technology, though to a lesser degree. The only candidate to match Barack Obama in terms of internet-led campaigning has been Ron Paul, who smashed online fundraising records with his ‘Boston Tea Party’, and whose supporters successfully astroturfed every political blog and web-page for the first few weeks of the GOP campaign season.
However, the most important aspect of the 2008 Democratic primary season has been that it involved active contests in each of the 50 states and 6 territories (DC, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Democrats Abroad). 2004 saw Kerry confirmed on Super Tuesday, though the contest was substantially decided after New Hampshire. Bill Bradley never seriously challenged Al Gore in 2000, certainly not after Super Tuesday. Bill Clinton in 1992 won by sweeping the contests immediately after New Hampshire, meaning we have to go back to 1988 to find a campaign that was still competitive after Super Tuesday, though not to the same extent as 2008. The Republicans have a similar history – very rarely (at least in the last 20 years) have primary seasons had more than one viable candidate after the first week in March.
The irresistable questions are whether external factors (other than the candidates) have forced the elongation of the primary process, and whether, next time a party is choosing a Presidential nominee (excluding where a sitting President is competing), we will see a return to the ‘over by March’ contests, or whether the 2008 model will become the norm.
Certainly the sums of money now available to candidates have allowed them to challenge in each of the 56 primaries and caucuses. The 2008 election is expected to be the first to cost over $1 billion, four times the cost eight years ago, though still less than one US cent from each American citizen every day for election year, or approximately what Americans spend on chewing gum per annum. The media also clearly plays a significant part – recognising that politics can be great TV and can sell papers should have come as no surprise, but the media seemed less swift to crown a victor this year, perhaps recognising that a perpetual campaign with advertising budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars was the perfect fillip for traditional media whose ad departments are struggling to compete with the targeted services of new media giants like Google.
If the media were eager to assist the underdogs to run as long as possible, and candidates were happy to spent their new-found wealth on ever more desperate strategies, the real motivation for the longevity of this contest came from the voters, particularly from the Democratic Party.
They signed up in record numbers to vote in primaries, even when those primaries would not elect eligible delegates (as in Michigan and Florida). They donated more generously than ever before, not to oppose the Republican party, but to get their preferred candidate on the top of the ticket. They demanded that all states and territories got a say, even down to the least populus, the very latest, and places without a vote in November.
This overwhelming determination to be involved, to join in the process and to share in the optimism has left the Democratic Party in the strongest position it has been in for many years. It would be understandable if the Republicans would wish to emulate this contest next time they choose between non-incumbent potential nominees, and the Democrats must make sure to repeat the process if they are to live up to their name. I think the primary season has been a great boon for the Democratic Party, but even if they were foolish enough to want to return to the six-week stitch-ups of the last 20 years, I think the media and the voters will demand otherwise.
The move away from Smoke-filled Rooms and Tammany Hall was a big step for the Democratic Party – the McGovern Commission in 1971 shook up the nomination process beyond recognition. The Democratic Party has given America and the world a demonstration of quite how vibrant democratic politics can be in apparently cynical and apathetic liberal democracies. They must emulate their achievement in four or eight years time – after all, thirty-six million voters and several TV network chiefs will be furious if they don’t.